The following is an excerpt from Ash Wednesday by J.R. Mabry. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
A rooster crowed, and as if in response, pink light broke out across Abel Nyland’s cornfield. Mia paused at the window over the sink at the sight of it, winding a strand of her hair around her fingertip that was now just a bit too red.
“What?” Abel asked.
“The light,” Mia said. “I know it comes every morning, but a part of me is always a little surprised.”
Abel huffed. “What worries me is this wind whipping up. When there’s wind, there’s fire.” He took a swig of his coffee and grimaced at the acid taste. Mia was a lovely woman and a good wife, but she couldn’t make coffee worth shit. And she had a romantic streak to her that he didn’t understand and that often put her at odds with common sense, as he understood it. Abel was not a man who understood beauty. He understood tractors and numbers and the fickleness of a six-inch plank.
Mia was always putting strange things in his food—spices he’d never heard of, and was reasonably certain she hadn’t either. He suspected that she bought things at the grocery at random just to torment him, and he didn’t understand why the woman couldn’t simply let eggs be eggs.
“Mmmm,” he said, flipping over the previous day’s paper. Today’s paper wouldn’t arrive for a couple hours. Abel didn’t mind living a day behind the rest of the world. There was a strange comfort in knowing that the world had gotten used to whatever had happened and was still there. Thus, whatever had happened could not have been too bad.
Ginger Beer whined. Abel adjusted his glasses and looked down at her. As soon as he met her eye, her tail started thumping. Glancing up to make sure Mia was still looking elsewhere, Abel fed her a bit of strangely spiced egg from his own fork. The yellow lab scarfed it up noisily with no attempt at deception.
“Abel, what is that?”
“What? What is what?” Abel said, a bit too quickly.
“What is that?” she pointed out the window.
He groaned. She wanted him to get up and come to the window. He did not want to get up and go to the window. Yet he knew from previous experience that she was not going to leave him be until he did. Grumbling, he wiped the sour coffee from his mustache on the sleeve of his flannel shirt and rose with a groan. Might as well get some fresh coffee while I’m up, he thought, feeling every day of his sixty-seven years as he made his way to the window.
“What is it?” he asked, feeling a pang of Scandinavian guilt that he had just used three words where one would have sufficed.
“Look there, gubben, what is that?”
He squinted in the direction she was pointing. He saw the barn, but it looked as it always looked, just darker. So he looked to left of the barn, toward the first field. “I don’t see nothing, gumman.”
“Open your eyes,” she said. “I’ve looked out this window every morning for forty-five years. That shadow was not there yesterday.”
Abel let out an exasperated sigh. Next, she was going to ask him to go out there. Thing was, he knew he would. He saw it all unspool before him, an inevitable progression that was going to take him away from his coffee, his day-old news, and his exotically spiced eggs long before God intended him to budge from his chair. “I’ll get my coat,” he sighed.
“I’m coming with you,” she said.
“Suit yourself,” he said, his voice ripe with resignation.
He snatched up his quilted hunting jacket. As soon as he did so, Ginger Beer barked and leaped up, tail wagging in anticipation. “Inside voice,” Abel said to her.
He paused and waited for Mia to put on her coat. Then he had to wait for her to check the stove. Then he had to wait for her to trade her slippers for her boots. I could have had another cup of coffee, he grumbled inwardly, but he didn’t dare say it aloud. Ginger Beer turned tight circles in excited anxiety.
Finally, Mia was ready. Abel snatched up a flashlight next to the door and undid the latch. He held it open for his wife and dog and then followed, the smells of coffee and bacon and dusty couches blown away by the crisp bite of the dawn breeze. His nostrils twitched as he took in the smell of wet earth, manure, and alfalfa, the most enticing scent known to humankind. Abel felt suddenly awake and blessed. The dark, quiet earth seemed charged with a divine power that every farmer worth his salt lived for. He knew some would call that a romantic notion, but in his heart he knew that it was simply the plain fact of it.
He descended the five steps at the end of the porch with an alacrity that surprised even him, then held a hand up to Mia as she approached the stairs. She took it, but as soon as she was down, she withdrew it and put it back in her pocket.
They walked toward the shadow as Ginger Beer ran ahead of them. Abel could see the shadow now, but he wasn’t going to say so. He switched on the flashlight and illumined their path.
“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet,” she said.
“It’s a flashlight,” he objected. This was the problem with romantic people. They were always inserting symbols and such that only got in the way of seeing things plain. Mia’s fancy irritated him, but in his honest moments, he had to admit that it brought needed ornamentation to his life—like the delicate doilies she put under everything that rested on anything else, like the flower pattern she’d painted near the ceiling of the bathroom all the way around, like the goddam garam masala in his eggs, whatever that was.
They slowed as they neared the field. In a couple of months, the corn would be coming up—Abel’s main crop. There shouldn’t be anything in his field right now except meticulously plowed rows and writhing segmented worms, as God intended.
But there was something. Ginger Beer had noticed it too. Her ears flattened against her head as she alternated between sniffing and barking.
“Is that a car?” Mia asked. “I’ve seen these new boxy cars. Ugly things. It could be that.”
“Looks more like a shed.”
“Someone put a shed in our field in the middle of the night? Who would do that?”
Abel grunted. There was more light now, the pink drawing yellows and reds alongside it, and increasing its potency with every passing second. Abel still shone the flashlight ahead of them. They were a stone’s throw away from the thing when he held out his arm to stop her.
Ginger Beer had halted about four feet from the thing and was barking continually. A frown clouded Abel’s Scandinavian brow—an expression that was no stranger to his face, but not ordinarily this severe. “Stay here,” he said to his wife. He stepped forward toward the thing and was relieved that she obeyed him. He was also a bit surprised, but he let the thought go as soon as it came.
He stopped again, about fifteen feet away from…whatever it was. The light was breaking in grand form over the sky now, bathing the few stratocumulus clouds with brilliant color. Ordinarily, he would no longer have needed the flashlight, but he kept it trained on the object, because he still had no idea what he was seeing.
“Ginger, be quiet! I can’t hear myself think!” he shouted. The dog looked uncertain, but came to his side, whining as she kept pace with him. He began to circle the thing, moving to his left.
“Abel! What is it?” Mia called.
He didn’t answer. He didn’t know. It appeared to be a block of stone, rough but regular, an almost perfect cube. It looked like it might be pink in color, but Abel distrusted the light. Yet every moment the morning grew brighter, and he began to suspect it was the color of adobe brick.
“It looks like a block of…I don’t know, not a rock, but…” he trailed off. As he and Ginger Beer continued to circle, he saw that the uniformity of the shape was changing.
He sensed motion behind him and glanced over his shoulder. Mia was no closer to the thing than she had been, but she was circumambulating now as well. He thought of telling her to stay still, but bit his tongue. She was a grown woman, after all. “Abel, are you scared?” she called out.
He didn’t answer. He kept the flashlight trained on the object as he walked. He saw a concave opening in it. No, that wasn’t quite right. There were huge sections missing from one side of it, jagged indentations, almost digging into the thing like the mouth of a cave. But if it was the mouth of a cave, there was something in that mouth.
Ginger Beer was sniffing furiously around the thing, keeping a distance of about two feet. The flashlight no longer had any effect, so Abel shut it off and slung it on his belt. Then he returned his attention to the object. Suddenly, Mia was beside him, and when she spoke it startled him.
“Abel, what is that?”
He didn’t rebuke her. He felt her hand on his arm and he did not refuse it. A part of him was glad of it. He grasped her hand; holding it tightly, they advanced toward what Abel began to think of as “the cube.”
Mia stopped and pulled him back. “That’s a sculpture.”
“There’s an opening there—”
“I see it.”
”—and there’s something in the opening.”
“I see that too, gumman.”
“But it’s not moving.”
They took another step toward it, then another. Abel began to suspect that she was right. As the light increased, he saw that there was the figure of a man carved into the block. But it was as if the sculpture was not finished, as the man’s torso blended into the block at about belt level. Abel blinked. He could make out the details of the belt buckle, in fact, just before it became an amorphous expanse of stone or clay or whatever it was.
But this was not a sculpture of a man in repose. It was a man in pain. His fingers were extended, palms facing Abel, and his face distorted as if pressed against glass. But there was no glass. The man wore a flannel shirt over a t-shirt and a vest over both. More detail than that was hard to gauge, as everything was the same orange/pink color. The man’s mouth was open in a silent cry—but whether it was supposed to be expressing agony or surprise, Abel could not tell.
“It’s horrible,” Mia said, clutching his arm so tight it had begun to tingle. He did not remove her hand, however. Instead, they stepped closer.
He didn’t disagree with her assessment. It was horrible. It was also confusing. Was the man flying? His arms were spread wide, hands ready for impact with…something. His eyes were wide with what could only be terror.
Abel’s own eyes widened. “I know that man.”
“What?” Mia asked.
“I know that man,” Abel repeated. He never repeated himself, not ever. “That there is Troy Swanson.”
Praise for Ash Wednesday
“Not only intriguing but also gripping, this book provides an amazing display of mystical knowledge. It is difficult to put down and nicely written. All in all, a fine tale well told.”
“I am familiar with Mabry’s work having read the Berkeley Blackfriars series, so I was expecting a wild, wonderful ride of a fantasy mystery. But I got so much more! There is most definitely an enjoyable mystery, but Ash Wednesday is also a deep, beautiful, and complex story that left me with much to think about, feel, and digest. Deep philosophical concepts are intermingled with the story in an easy-to-understand way that invited me to ponder how we deal (or don’t deal) with grief and trauma and the effect that has on our lives and relationships. I will definitely be revisiting parts of this book more than once as I continue to unravel ideas it presented while thoroughly entertaining me.”
“Moves fast with a lot of twists and turns. The characters are well developed and seen familiar by the end. Action mixed with emotion and deep insight. A unique offering.”
“Think of any human (or non-human) conundrum, or condition, or state of mind, Mabry’s mind goes there! Inhabiting the mind- and heart-worlds of humanity in all it’s forms is one of Mabry’s gifts; his scrupulous effort to get it right is his grace as a writer. Each character is sketched with a generosity of spirit that makes the reader care about their fate. In the end, we identify with these people because we know these people, or, failing that, we end up wishing we did.”
“This is perhaps my favorite of the John Mabry books I’ve had the pleasure to read. Lengthy and complex, yes. Powerfully spiritual against a backdrop of small town people with a variety of philosophical and political views. Crazy, engaging, somewhat creepy plot. It helps to have some familiarity with a spectrum of religious ideas and practices, but at the same time, the book is very educational if you don’t. Love the way the characters are drawn, particularly Malala.”
About the Author
J.R. Mabry roams the earth like the ghost of Jacob Marley, searching for the perfect omelet pan. He writes thoughtful urban fantasy and science fiction. When not haunting high-end cooking stores, he lives with his wife and three dogs in Oakland, CA. He is allergic to coffee, tea, and alcohol, and for this reason the hills resound with his lamentation. He is also generally a cheery guy.
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